A special Report by ICC
3/14/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – With the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, anti-Christian violence is quickly rising under the influence of Islamist extremism, thus raising concerns about the future of religious freedom in the country.
The end of an oppressive dictatorship is a good thing for any nation, but when it is replaced by Islamist extremism, there remains great cause for concern. As ICC’s Middle-East Regional Manager Aidan Clay said, “In Libya, Egypt, and several Middle Eastern countries, Islamists have gained significant political influence, and sentences against proselytizing, blasphemy, and apostasy are being enforced to an extent never seen under former dictatorships.”
Libya’s growing anti-Christian hostility is exemplified by the ongoing campaign of arresting foreigners suspected of being missionaries and accused of proselytizing, a charge that could carry the death penalty.
On Feb. 10, four foreigners – a Swedish-American, Egyptian, South African and South Korean – were arrested in Benghazi, accused of printing and distributing bible pamphlets in the city. On Feb. 13, officers of the Preventative Security, an internal police force, picked up two more Egyptian Christians, and another Egyptian Christian was arrested by Feb. 16.
Another wave of arrests was said to have taken place on Feb. 17, in Tripoli. According to Morning Star News, sources in Libya reported to contacts in Egypt that no one has been able to contact these detainees, learn their location or even get an estimate of the number of those said to be arrested.
Sherif Ramses of Egypt, one of the four arrested on Feb. 10, allegedly had 30,000 Bibles in storage, a figure that was inflated to 45,000 in published statements by the police. Ramses ran a small printing service in Benghazi and a bookstore that sold both Christian and secular books. He was reportedly tortured and authorities used him to get the names of other Christians in Libya, possibly by accessing information on his cell phone. It was unclear, however, if any Christians subsequently detained had any significant links to Ramses’ work.
The arrests are only part of the ongoing political campaign against Christians in Libya. Three communities of Roman Catholic nuns are leaving the country because of threats from radical Islamists.
On March 2, armed militia attacked a Catholic priest in Tripoli, the latest incident in a growing number of attacks on Christians in Libya. Last week, in Benghazi, armed men attacked a church, assaulting two priests of the Egyptian Coptic community. Around the same time, 100 Christian Copts were arrested and tortured; their heads were shaved and tattooed crosses burned off with acid.
In December, two Egyptian Coptic Christians were killed in a bomb blast at a Coptic church in the Mediterranean town of Dafniya. In September, assailants broke in and burnt icons at St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church. The worrisome thing about these incidents is that they are escalating quickly.
The Libyan Foreign Ministry called on “all Libyan citizens to respect those from friendly and sister countries living in Libya and to respect their beliefs.” But these words seem shallow in a country whose restrictive religion laws can be manipulated to incite and endorse Christian persecution. Where anti-Christian laws are enforced, anti-Christian hostility is bound to increase.
Libya is, therefore, carrying out a legalized hate-campaign against Christians in the country, targeting anyone who poses a “threat to national security,” even if they practice their faith in the privacy of their legally owned church building.
Although the Libyan Foreign Ministry has strongly condemned the recent incidents, they are simply a foretaste of the future under an extremist-influenced Libya. Such attacks rarely, if ever, occurred even under Gaddafi’s oppressive regime.
Underlining the danger for Christians in the new Libya, ICC’s Clay also said: “According to Father Dominique Rezeau, there were as many as 100,000 Christians in Libya before the country’s revolution, primarily among the expatriate community, but today only a few thousand remain. Islamists are growing bolder with every new accusation against a Christian or other minority for proselytizing or being involved in some other type of ‘illegal’ religious activity. Sadly, the arrests of Christians and attacks on the Christian community are bound to escalate as a result.”
Libya is a conservative Muslim country, with only a few churches, populated almost entirely by foreigners. Rev. Vaihar Baskaran, priest at the Anglican Church of Christ the King, told The Guardian that he had yet to meet a Libyan Christian. The spread of the Gospel among Libyans seems even less likely with the speaker of congress, Mohammed Magariaf, recently pledging that Libya would incorporate Sharia law into its future constitution.
Left unchecked, Libya will become worse off than it was under Gaddafi, by becoming a breeding ground for Islamic radicalism that endangers the safety of Christians and anyone else it perceives as an enemy or a threat. Persistent international intervention and pressure is needed to prevent Sharia law from coming into force in Libya to ensure that, at best, complete religious freedom is given to Christians or, at least, assurances are given for the intentional protection of religious minorities from hate-crimes and all forms of persecution.